GUATEMALA CITY — Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt spent his first full day as a convict Saturday in a 16-by-13 foot cell with a small bed, bathroom and window, after receiving a landmark 80-year sentence for genocide and crime against humanity.
It was a steep fall for the 86-year-old former strongman who ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983, during the height of a brutal civil war that killed 200,000 people, mainly Indians.
A tribunal on Friday ruled that Rios Montt knew about the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Maya in Guatemala's western highlands and didn't stop it, handing down the first genocide conviction ever given to a Latin American strongman in his own country.
The former general was transferred to prison later that evening.
"He is not comfortable, but as a good soldier he is used to this," said Rios Montt's lawyer, Francisco Palomo, who is expected to seek to have the ex-general transferred to a hospital or to have his sentence be served under house arrest.
Matamoros prison, where Rios Montt is now behind bars, is located on a military base in Guatemala City where the former general spent time as a young cadet. It was built to house high-profile inmates who could be unsafe in normal prisons.
Authorities there say he has the right to spend two hours outside his cell each day, but guarded by officers. He has the right to three daily meals, though family members can also bring him food.
Most in Guatemala feel the sentence prison represents a triumph after a long struggle in a country still recovering from a 36-year-civil war that ended with peace accords in 1996.
"It's very valuable to us, totally refreshing. We deserved it," said human rights activist Helen Mack.
Genocidal massacres occurred before and after Rios Montt, "but the bulk of the killing took place under Rios Montt," said Victoria Sanford an anthropologist at Lehman College-City University of New York who spent about 50 months in excavations of at least eight massacre sites.
The long sentence was a message, activists said, that the previously untouchable and brutal military structures need to be held accountable. Guatemala's maximum sentence is 50 years making the 80 years symbolic.
The three-judge panel also ordered prosecutors to continue investigating to bring all those responsible for abuses to justice. Until now, only low or middle-level officials have been prosecuted for war atrocities.
On Monday, the same court will meet to discuss the compensation for the victims.
Indians and activists applauded and some wept after hearing Friday's ruling. But some are wondering if Rios Montt can successfully appeal.
Adding to their worries is the fact that Guatemala's current president, Otto Perez Molina, still refuses to acknowledge that genocide took place.
"It is painful to hear that some are in a state of denial, but admitting it is the first step for the country to heal," Mack said. "It is not over."
Perez Molina's name was brought up during the trial when a former soldier accused him of ordering executions while serving in the military in the Rios Montt regime.
He called the testimony "lies."
In a late Friday interview, Perez Molina told CNN's Spanish-language channel that there was no genocide, despite the ruling being seen as the country's first official acknowledgment that one took place.
"When I said that Guatemala has seen no genocide, I repeat it now after this ruling," Perez Molina said. "Today's ruling is not final . . . the decision will not be final until the moment they run out of appeals."
Defense lawyer Francisco Palomo vowed to appeal the ruling, saying it was unjust.
Rios Montt has insisted he never knew of or ordered massacres while in power.
He began his career in the Guatemalan army in 1946 as a cadet. He seized power in March of 1982 through a military coup, and held it for 18 months until he was overthrown.
Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, a Guatemala businessman and son of a military officer, called the trial biased.
"We have found out the Ixiles' side of the story, not the whole truth," he said. "We want to rise up to show the world that this decision is not hailed by everyone in Guatemala."
In Rios Montt's trial, dozens of Ixil Mayas stood up and testified of atrocities, such as mass rapes and killing of children by the military. Perez Molina said the army was not at fault.
"It was an armed conflict that was internal. The army did not cause this armed confrontation. The army did not declare war on the places where the Ixiles lived. The guerrilla did it," he said.
Military offensives were part of a brutal, decades-long counterinsurgency against a leftist uprising that brought massacres in the Mayan heartland where the guerrillas were based. A U.N. truth commission said both state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations that it documented, mostly against indigenous Maya.
Guatemalan Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu says Guatemala's moment strengthens the world's powerless. Ixil Mayas, she said, can teach other oppressed groups around the world to stand by their rights and not to rest until tyrants are punished by law.
"This could mean that everyone, all indigenous people all over the planet who have been treated with hatred, who have been branded as liars, could hopefully start living in harmony," Menchu said.
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